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System change in the suckler beef sector

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

As we all know agriculture is going through a period of change and challenges. Be it Brexit and the uncertainty this brings, or the relatively poor beef price currently, these are all things sent to challenge us and that’snot taking into account the weather! What can we do to manage our own businesses and what can we change that is under our control and what do we need to look at in order to change and ensure we have resilient businesses going into a world of potentially lower subsidy support?

The key message is - we can’t change things when we don’t know where the problems lie or, more importantly, what we are good at. To do this, firstly, we need to measure where we are.

Enterprise Costings and physical herd performance

Know where you are in terms of costs and performance and set targets. The dairy, poultry and pork sectors monitor everything closely, mainly because the rewards for doing so are more instant and the effect of the changes we make can be seen more quickly and if we get it right, this is massively rewarding. Suckler beef by its very nature is a longer process but changes can still be made, and the response can be just as rewarding if we know what we’ve changed, how we changed it and why we did it.

Allocating costs to different enterprises can be as detailed or as simple as you like but the main thing is to make a start somewhere. Benchmark your performance against other similar farms and benchmark against yourself, setting your own targets in the areas you know you need to improve having gathered the data.

Doing this will flag up areas of focus – Can you make small alterations? or do you need to review your complete system and make game-changing alterations in terms of the type of cow or marketing policy?

Using EiD and weighing systems to monitor weight gain and breeding from the most productive animals using this information, is key. Do you know the weight of your cows? Are you estimating? How accurate are you?

In terms of suckler cows, the standard answer is always 650kg. when looking at cow efficiency it's important to measure the weight of calf reared against the weight of cow to the bull. The aim is to rear 50% of cow weight but as an industry, we are currently in the low 40% at best.

Are you calving at 2years? Are growth rates restricting your ability to calve at 2?Are you selecting heifers from your most efficient cows?

Recently 20 heifers were selected on a farm that had been using EID for 2 years. Heifers were initially selected on sight alone. Once selected by eye based on size and cow type their individual data was looked at. This threw up some surprises. The biggest heifer, the one we would all keep –had the least efficient mother. Mum weighed1000kg. Her heifer at 15months age, was still only 42% of her mature weight. Based ona650kg cow the bulling weight is correct (65% of mature weight) but based on mothers weight, if going by the book, she needed to be 650kg to the bull!! Based on this info this heifer wasn’t kept and heifers from the most efficient cows were the ones that were kept.The most efficient cow in this group weighing 580kg with the heifer weight at bulling being 75% of mothers mature weight.

This begs the question - How many inefficient cows are we keeping as an industry when just selecting by eye? And how can we better integrate EIDinto our suckler beef systems?

So, what does this mean in real terms? A 650kg cow requires 75 MJ of energy for maintenance per day. A 750kg cow requires 85MJ. This is the equivalent of an extra 2000Mj of energy over a 200-day winter. This equates to 760kg of 10.5 ME, 25% dry matter silage. Or, in monetary terms, £20 per cow per year based on a conservative silage cost of£25 per tonne.

In terms of grassland, what does this mean? 116 cows weighing 650kg can be kept on the same ground as 100 cows weighing 750kg. If output is maintained in terms of calves reared, this means more kilos produced per acre and more cows to spread fixed costs against –The biggest cost of keeping a suckler cow.

Reducing costs and maintain output...

How can we reduce overhead cost per cow? On paper it's simple. More cows producing more kg’s per hectare as efficiently as possible. You are obviously restricted by the soil type and land type of your farm. The more buildings and machinery cost we have against cows increases the overhead cost of the system.

Look at your system–Can you shorten the winter housed period? Reducing your need for silage, can you utilise grass better and increase grass growth per hectare by improving grazing management. Can you use flexible electric fencing systems such as solar energisers on your outlying land to split up large blocks of land? Can you integrate mains electric fencing on ground close to the farm? Can you grow brassicas as part of your grassland reseeding plan or crop rotation and use electric fencing to ensure high utilisation? Do you have rough grazing where small cows in good condition can be wintered cheaply with a protein supplement?

This all relies on reducing cow size. Lighter cows produce more kilos as a percentage of their weight and have the potential to be wintered outside for longer on cheaper systems whilst maintaining output and producing the smaller carcass weights that the end market requires and gives us more flexibility in our system choice.

Written by James Hadwin

JH Agri Consultancy


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